Fort Hunt was built during the Spanish-American War on a portion of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate to help bolster the Potomac River’s coastal defenses.
It later served as a staging point for the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, hosted an ROTC unit for African American soldiers during segregation, and now is managed by the National Park Service.
But until historians began digging, a clandestine piece of the 136-acre site’s military service was so tightly hidden away, it was at risk of being lost forever.
“This started coming together during a tour when someone raised their hand and mentioned their neighbor used to be an interrogator there,” says Robert K. Sutton, a 1984 doctoral grad who retired this year as chief historian for the U.S. National Park Service. “What they found as they started contacting and interviewing these former vets and other people who were there at the time was pretty dramatic.”
The once-abandoned military installation about 15 miles south of Washington, D.C. is where top-ranking Nazi commanders and other high-value prisoners were interrogated during World War II. The project, known only as PO Box 1142, was so secretive that many of the wartime prisoners arrived aboard submarines up the Potomac. It also was where the U.S. military coordinated escape efforts for Allied prisoners of war being held overseas and was operated by the secretive government program that would later become the Central Intelligence Agency.
The discovery, along with eventually declassified Department of Defense documents, helped illuminate a previously little-understood piece of the war effort. And it spotlights an often-overlooked role of the Park Service as a keeper and interpreter of American history.
“What I think is interesting about the Park Service is we pretty much cover the ground on every important event and historical development in our nation’s history,” says Sutton, who spent 24 years with the Park Service. “For me, it was important to get past the dates and names associated with these big events and explore why these things were happening.”
He focuses on the narratives that preserve and tell the story of America.
Sutton’s approach to historical interpretation was so compelling, many of his projects have been turned into books and classroom educational materials. His interpretive exhibits are designed to immerse visitors not just in the historical moment but in the cultural periods and the lives of those affected.
“National Park Service exhibits are a little different than museum exhibits,” Sutton says. “They are designed to help visitors understand the significance of the site and then go out and experience the site.”
A Pacific Northwest native, Sutton is an internationally recognized expert on the history of the U.S. Constitution, the American West and the U.S. Civil War. He worked for the Park Service while completing his doctorate at WSU, then left to take a teaching position at Arizona State University. A few years later, he returned to the Park Service as a historian and eventually was promoted to superintendent at the Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia, the site of the Civil War’s first major battle. He became the agency’s chief historian in 2007.
It was at Manassas where Sutton began digging into Civil War history and where others began noticing his knack for finding the important but sometimes less-obvious narratives.
He gathered stories about African American experiences during what essentially was their war for freedom. He chronicled the horrifying stories of civilians trapped between fighting armies, including the first civilian casualty at Manassas. He coedited a book of essays in 2013 exploring the various wartime roles of Native Americans, who fought on both sides of the conflict in what would amount to futile efforts to protect their homes, land, and autonomy.
WSU history professor Raymond Sun praises Sutton for weaving together crucial themes that traditionally haven’t been considered together, describing his work as delivering “a richer and more complete treatment of our history.”
That focus is on full display this year as the National Park Service celebrates its centennial. The agency oversees 84 million acres of preserved parks, monuments, battlefields, historic sites, lakeshores and seashores, scenic and recreation areas, and the White House.
About two-thirds of those sites have historical or cultural aspects to them.
But there’s still one major piece of American history that has yet to be memorialized: the Reconstruction Era.
It’s something Sutton still thinks about. He and the superintendent at Gettysburg National Military Park, John Latschar, had talked about it for years, promising each other they’d somehow find a way to make sure that such a critical period of post-Civil War history is properly remembered.
Sutton even has a location in mind: Beaufort, South Carolina. And to understand why, you must immerse yourself in the narrative of the time.
Beaufort, a tiny coastal town between Savannah and Charleston, was where the United States got its first glimpse of what the Reconstruction Era would require. It was captured by the North early in the war, with most of the wealthy white families hastily fleeing in advance of the military columns and leaving behind hundreds of slaves with no preparation for what it meant to be free.
The federal government, along with religious and humanitarian organizations, moved to establish schools and training programs that would help the former slaves learn to manage their own lives. African Americans who had escaped slavery earlier and had been living as free men and women in northern states were sent to Beaufort to help.
Among them was Robert Smalls, a native son who, along with a handful of other slaves forced to fight for the South, had stolen a Confederate warship in 1862 and surrendered it to a Union naval blockade. He later was elected to Congress.
“Beaufort was like a rehearsal for Reconstruction,” says Sutton. “That’s where we first began to realize what something like this was going to take.”
The details. Sutton knows that’s where history truly resides. He compares it to the way we peel back layers of an onion to get past the rough surface.
“I think what we were able to do is really broaden the scope,” he says. “We need to understand what was causing these events in our history … and the way we can do that is to look beyond the basics.”